The unholy wars of global jihad

For centuries, men and women have answered the call to fight in the name of God. From Islamist militias to terror cells and lone bombers, we look at the shifting arguments shaping global 'jihad'.

The summer of 1989 was a heady one for jihadists across Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. The Soviet Union, after a decade in ­Afghanistan, finally retreated into Uzbekistan. Afghans and Pakistanis, along with the “Afghan Arabs”, who formed a significant part of the anti-Soviet fighters, celebrated what they believed was a divine victory.

But it was not the end. The men may have felt they were fighting a holy war and doing God’s will, but even a divine directive requires a direction. The question now was: where next? The caravan of ­jihad had passed one destination. Having, as they saw it, humiliated the Soviet empire, where would the jihadists now go?

That essential question was especially debated among the small group of Arabs who had gathered across the border in Pakistan. Two in particular stood out: a Palestinian scholar called Abdullah Azzam and a youthful Egyptian Islamist called Ayman Al Zawahiri. Both were linked with an organisation called the Afghan Services Bureau in Peshawar, run by a handsome Saudi in his early 30s.

Azzam and Al Zawahiri had much in common. Both were Arabs, ­foreigners in a distant country and fighters in a distant war. They were thoughtful and, to a certain degree, charismatic – able to persuade many of the impressionable young men around them with their ideas.

But they were also products of their time, bloodied by the conflicts of the Middle East. Azzam was born into British Mandate Palestine, before the establishment of Israel, and witnessed the wars that birthed that country. Al Zawahiri, 10 years younger, had been an active member of the Islamist movement in Egypt – arrested, jailed and tortured after Anwar Sadat was assassinated.

For Azzam, the next phase of jihad had to be against others who he believed had invaded Muslim lands. He thought in particular of Palestine and hoped to build, in Afghanistan, a base from which to launch attacks against Israel. The organisation he formed with the young, wealthy Saudi was called “The Base”, or, in Arabic: Al Qaeda. For Al Zawahiri, still thinking of Egypt, the next phase of jihad was global – it had to start against the “apostate” regimes of the Arab world but would reach their backers in the West.

Azzam disagreed with fighting other Muslims – he believed casualties among Muslims should be avoided; Al Zawahiri thought anyone was a legitimate target, if they stood in the way of the return of the caliphate.

Such arguments can seem ­theoretical, the distractions of the philosophy of war and the arcane theology thought to underpin it. Yet, the arguments expressed in northern Pakistan in the late 1980s have a direct impact on the wars now plaguing the Middle East.

It was the theories of jihad, ­formulated and codified in the ­battle against the Soviet Union, that eventually found their way to the battlefields of Iraq and Syria. Today, the very arguments that Azzam and Al Zawahiri had in Peshawar are played out across the canvas of the Middle East. The fate of millions in the Middle East today is still ruled by their ideas of holy war.

Today, in Syria, Al Qaeda’s affiliate, Jabhat Al Nusra, takes a less hardline approach to the populations in which they live, seeking to win their hearts and minds. This approach, originally advocated by Azzam, has been adopted by Al Zawahiri, now the head of Al Qaeda.

In contrast, the hard-line attitude towards minority Muslim sects and Christians, once advocated by Al Zawahiri, is evident in the brutal way that ISIL rules its stronghold of Raqqa in north-eastern Syria and the way it treated the Iraqi Yazidis and Christians. The different conceptions of holy war are alive and well.

Back in Peshawar, Al Zawahiri won the argument about the direction of jihad in part, at least, because Azzam was killed in a mysterious ­attack in 1989. The fighters who now gathered around the wealthy Saudi, Osama bin Laden, were ­persuaded by the outlook of the ­radical Egyptian.

Azzam may have been killed, but his legacy would be long. He had created an intellectual architecture for jihad. Two years before the ­Soviets left, Azzam had written a book called Join the Caravan. It became – and remains – one of the most influential books on modern jihad, still circulated online among militants and their supporters.

A short, dense text filled with religious explanations and Qurannic footnotes, Join the Caravan has nonetheless become one of the most widely read books on the subject of jihad, sold in bookshops across the world including in the West, and the subject of intense ­discussion and dissection online.

At the heart of Join the Caravan is a small but vital argument about when fighting a war becomes obligatory for individuals. Azzam was a religious scholar, but also a deeply political man. He sought to overturn the ideas of defensive jihad that had held sway for centuries.

Defensive jihad, or jihad in the service of defending an Islamic state, can be explained by reference to how wars are waged among modern nation states. In the United States today, for example, the decision to wage war comes from the government and, once that decision is made, it is carried out by the professional standing army.

But during America’s Revolutionary War, when the British colonies in North America revolted against British rule, there was no American standing army. Instead, each of the colonies raised militias from their local populations. The obligation to wage war thus fell, in the absence of a central government or authority, on to the individuals. The same could be said of the French resistance during the Nazi occupation of the Second World War.

Azzam, although he did not use the examples of the American Revolutionary War or the French resistance, argued that a parallel moment in history had arrived. For centuries, defensive jihad could only be ­proclaimed by an appropriate ­authority – usually the head of state or a religious leader. When, for example, in 1914, the Ottoman Empire declared a holy war against the Triple Entente of Britain, France and Russia, it was the highest-­ranking Islamic scholar in the empire who proclaimed it.

Azzam argued that in the absence of a central authority, obligation for jihad shifted from the collective to the individual. In religious terms, he wrote, once enemies of Islam ­occupied the lands of Muslims, then jihad was no longer a communal obligation (fard kifayah) but instead became an individual obligation (fard ‘ayn). Jihad at that moment, he wrote, became like performing religious prayers – it was something every individual had to do, regardless of what any central authority or the wider society said. It became an act of devotion, a direct obligation of the believer towards God.

The importance of this idea is difficult to overstate. It is one of the ­fundamental concepts that underpins global jihad today. From his base in northern Pakistan, Azzam had made an argument that is believed today by jihadis as far afield as Nigeria, Syria and the Philippines.

It is the religious underpinning to the hundreds of men and women who have gone to fight in foreign countries or sought to wage jihad at home. Azzam was clear that jihad requires no one’s permission: “The woman may go out without her husband’s permission, the one in debt without the permission of the one to whom he owes, the child without his father’s permission.” Previously, it was understood that waging jihad required the permission of parents – the idea being to give those parents who had only one child to support them the option of saying no – but Azzam overturned all of that. Don’t debate, don’t discuss, don’t seek permission, Azzam exhorted. Join the caravan. And hundreds did.

Over the next decade, Al Qaeda began to formulate its ideas for a global jihad, seeking to attack “the head of the serpent”. Al Qaeda wanted to draw the US into Afghanistan and sought audacious plots, targeting US personnel in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, US embassies in East Africa and US warships in the Gulf of Aden. The group plotted to bring down 11 American airliners simultaneously in 1995, but a chance incident attracted the Philippines police and disrupted the plot. Then, on September 9, 2001, bin Laden called his adoptive mother in Saudi Arabia. “In two days you’re going to hear big news,” he told her, “and you’re not going to hear from me for awhile.”

The years after 9/11 were chaotic for militants. Jihad, both its theory and its practice, was in flux. The primary architects of the 9/11 attacks were being hunted, and followers of jihad were scattered, fighting the Americans or in hiding. Many were captured; many more simply went to ground, re-entering their old lives.

Bin Laden had been convinced that a sufficiently spectacular attack would energise the Muslim world. He also believed that if a western country invaded Afghanistan, as the Soviets had done in 1979, an influx of Muslims would follow to fight them. Neither occurred.

The “base” in Afghanistan was ­disrupted and the waging of a centralised jihad became impossible. Back in Peshawar, Azzam and Al Zawahiri had disagreed about who should be fought – but they both agreed that a “base” was required, a group or vanguard to direct the ­jihad. Now that base was gone.

Into this flux of jihad came Abu Musab Al Suri, a red-haired engineer who would change the direction of the global jihad. Like Al Zawahiri, Al Suri brought his own experiences of fighting Arab regimes to bear on his theories of jihad. Al Suri was, as his name in Arabic suggests, Syrian and had been a member of the Muslim Brotherhood there, opposing Hafez Al Assad. By a quirk of chance, he was out of the country when Assad launched his 1982 attack, massacring thousands in Hama and crushing the Brotherhood. Al Suri escaped and went to Spain before eventually finding his way to Afghanistan in the last years of the Soviet invasion.

Al Suri believed it was the Brotherhood’s fault for provoking Assad. In Afghanistan, he saw the same mistakes being repeated. As Hama was for the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, so was Afghanistan for Al Qaeda: a safe haven, from where they could plot, plan and prepare. Giving that up would be suicide, he argued.

Bin Laden, Al Suri suggested in a later book, would not listen. “I think,” he said scathingly, “our brother has caught the disease of screens, flashes, fans and applause.”

During his years on the run after 9/11, Al Suri pondered the same questions that Azzam and Al Zawahiri had wrestled with 15 years previously. Jihad, he still believed, was a divine call. But where and how best to fight it?

Al Suri returned to Azzam’s ideas of an individual jihad – that jihad was an individual obligation – but updated them for the particular context of the time. Instead of participating in what he called “open fronts” of confrontation with the West – he was thinking of Iraq and Afghanistan – he advised an individualised jihad. This, he argued, was the next wave of jihad, of what have been called “lone-wolf” attacks. Individuals or small cells, radicalised online, unknown to each other and often even to those radicalising them, who stage attacks in whichever country they can.

Al Suri's ideas, published online even while he was on the run, were influential. In particular his book, The Global Islamic Resistance Call, became a definitive text for jihadis, almost as influential in its time as Join the Caravan. After September 11, lone-wolf attacks were the primary concern of western governments. Casablanca in 2003, Madrid in 2004, London in 2005 and New York in 2010 – all were victims of lone-wolf attacks. Al Suri was called the architect of these attacks, even though there was no evidence that he met the attackers. Instead, as he wrote in his book, it was the "inspiration" for jihad that was so important.

Al Suri’s “new generation” of jihad seemed, for some years, the only direction that jihad could take. With western and Arab intelligence agencies hunting jihadis, their funders and sympathisers, there was no hiding place, no ungoverned area where jihadis could operate and organise, as they had done for years in Afghanistan. Then the US, of all countries, handed the jihadis a gift: Iraq.

The chaos unleashed in Iraq by the US invasion opened the door to jihadis and gave them a place to gather. Suddenly, the idea of a base for jihad was again possible.

The lone wolf or the base. The slow and steady or the spectacular. The heavy-handed treatment of populations or the winning of hearts and minds. These were, and remain, the arguments of jihad, arguments that both the Arab world and the West have opted out of.

To understand what is happening in the Middle East today requires an understanding of what jihad means, how it should be fought, who should make up its fighters and where they should aim their guns. But it is not a purely academic exercise. Jihad has a significant theoretical hinterland, but this hinterland is evolving. It changes in relation to what is happening in the world around it.

There are jihadis today who follow both paths; those who believe in a centralised authority, a base of operations, and those who believe in individual attacks. Some agreed with the former but, when circumstances changed, switched. This is what makes tackling jihad so difficult. It is an evolution, a mutating threat; like a river, it shifts to accommodate the twists of conflict. Techniques once tried are sometimes tried again, in a different context. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t.

Take, for example, the idea of a spectacular PR exercise to draw recruits. Bin Laden was convinced that the 9/11 attacks would draw Muslims to join his jihad. It didn’t.

Yet this same taste for the spectacle is what drew Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, the leader of ISIL, to declare himself caliph and proclaim the formation of a new caliphate. And it worked: western security agencies estimate more men and women have flocked to Syria to join the “caliphate” than ever went to join bin Laden.

Sometimes, however, the same techniques bring the same results. When, in 2005, Al Zawahiri warned the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, against videos of beheadings, he did so because he was concerned such acts would horrify the world and persuade more people to fight Al Qaeda. He was right. A decade on, it was precisely the same act – the beheading on video of two American journalists – that pushed US public opinion and Barack Obama back into Iraq.

But this is not a battle that can be won by weapons; it has to be won by ideas. Even as US warplanes fly over Iraq again, the Middle East and the West – on this, at least, clear allies – are ceding the vital battleground of ideas to the militants. The actions of the West merely influence the ideology; they do not counter it.

Jihad is an evolving battle of ideas. Before our eyes, jihadis are experimenting across a wide theatre of war. Ideas from the past are updated and refined; methods of persuasion are experimented with. Jihadis learn from each other; they are looking at what works in one area and trying to replicate it elsewhere; they seek past mistakes and avoid them.

In Syria, ISIL has set up an administration in Raqqa, seeking to establish a base of operations, as Al Zawahiri tried to do in Afghanistan. In the West, jihadis seek lone-wolf attacks, drawing on the writing of Al Suri – indeed, ISIL encourages them, as it did last week, to attack Americans wherever they can. And everywhere, drawing on the teachings of Azzam, young men and women leave their families and communities without permission, seeking to join a divine caravan of war.

This crucial battlefield of ideas has been ceded by the Middle East and the West, which focus on a military solution to these weeds of war. All the while, in the dark corners of the internet and the ungoverned spaces of the world, the cancer of jihadism is mutating and spreading.

Faisal Al Yafai is a columnist for The National.